Euro-women find Archilleas's heel

July 16, 1999

Conferences held at the behest of the European Commission tend to have laudable aims, but few concrete outcomes. Last week's women and science conference in Brussels was no exception.

Archilleas Mitos, director of the human potential and mobility unit at the commission's directorate general for science, research and development, opened the conference. Arranged in long horseshoes, the women sat through soporific presentations on the fifth framework programme.

Delegates then seized the chance to question Mr Mitos on the practical issues that concerned them. Why are Marie Curie fellowships restricted to scientists under 35, thereby requiring women to postpone having children, they asked. Conversely, why not relax the age limit to avoid discriminating against women who have taken time out to have children before the age of 35?

The answers were puzzling. You could be forgiven for thinking that it is unethical to discriminate on grounds of age, but Mr Mitos told the conference that to remove the age limit would cause "legal difficulties".

Moreover, such a move "would require a rethink of the present philosophy" and would therefore be inappropriate.

When pressed by a third question on the topic - that there should be a distinction between physical and professional age - he answered that "now is not the time to try to change decisions". He then fled the conference.

The following day, the meeting perked up when the names of the proposed new European Commissioners were announced. Romano Prodi, the president designate, had stated that he wanted to increase the number of female commissioners. How many were women, delegates asked. They were told the proportion is unchanged, at 25 per cent.

Such mathematical prowess could help explain the European Commission's desire to raise to 40 per cent the proportion of women serving on evaluation and monitoring panels. Why not equality, delegates muttered.

After touring the conference stands and collecting fridge magnets, proclaiming "Women's work counts", delegates set off for the conference dinner. En route, discussion centred on whether the venue, the Palais de la Plume, translated as the Palace of the Pen, reflected the guests' academic interests. Suffice to say that the walls were lined with feathers.

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